Have at It: An Interview with Mike Doughty

[20 March 2012]

By Dave Mistich

Mike Doughty has been all about answering questions lately. He’s made it so that he needs to.

There is, of course, the recent release of “The Question Jar Show”—a live album that features Doughty and longtime musical companion Andrew “Scrap” Livingston quipping sharp wit between songs in response to questions ranging from the ridiculous to the mundane.

There’s also “The Book of Drugs” tour, where Doughty currently finds himself trekking around performing songs, reading from his new memoir about his past addictions and the emotional torture inflicted by his former band mates in Soul Coughing, and—you guessed it—answering questions from the audience.

It seems strange, then, that Doughty would need to take the time to sit down for an interview. But considering the kinds of questions he’s gotten recently during the Q&A portion of his shows, there’s been a lack of serious inquiry directed towards him, even despite baring virtually everything of note in The Book of Drugs.

So, when Doughty sat down in the back stage area of Cosmic Charlie’s in Lexington before Saturday night’s show, he seemed genuinely delighted to speak about the book and his records—even responding to “gnarly” questions about Soul Coughing without hesitation. He was calm and contemplative, and wiggled in his seat when he was working out the answer to a question that he hadn’t exactly had yet.

It was quickly apparent that interviews with media provided a chance to escape the obvious, ran-into-the-ground “Why did Soul Coughing break up?”-type questions that he oftentimes finds intertwined with those ludicrous in nature (being proposed to, preferences to hypothetical fights, etc.).

“I’m pretty much ready to answer anything at this point,” said Doughty.

* * *

Given the typical band-front-man-turned-solo-act career path of many artists, artists are strangely obligated to retain some reflection of their past life. After all, that’s what made them famous.

But not Mike Doughty. He’s refused to perform songs by Soul Coughing and has even refused to discuss anything about group and their collapse. That is, until recently. Nowadays, he is trying to gracefully separate himself from that world by trying to be upfront about the past, accept it for what it was, and finally move on.

“As long as they don’t say ‘Mike Doughty of Soul Coughing,’ because ‘of’ is in the present tense,” said Doughty when asked how he feels about the possibility of never shedding the ‘that-dude-from-that-wacky-cult-band-in-the-‘90s’ label.

And who would fault him for trying to disassociate himself from the Soul Coughing days? After all, those days were riddled with various drug addictions and disastrous conflicts within the band.

“For years I always thought people knew this stuff. It was such a crazy, emotionally abusive environment, ” he said.

Luckily, Doughty kicked the drugs, although, he remains—to a certain degree—an extension of his cult status with Soul Coughing. Having released a string of marginally successful records (in the commercial sense, that is), he’s relatively unknown to those who haven’t done their pop-music-listening homework.

From the honest, simple, acoustic-pop of early albums like Skittish to the quirky catchiness of his latest studio release, Yes And Also Yes, Doughty has sustained a career far more valuable than what could be measured by album sales or hits on an arbitrary chart. Sure, he’s scored minor hits like “27 Jennifers” and “Looking at the World From the Bottom of a Well”, but he’s still carving out a name for himself as a solo act more than a decade after Soul Coughing’s disbandment.

“I’ve worked my ass off getting an audience to just listen to the new shit,” Doughty admitted humbly.

Aside from working in the traditional write-an-album-and-tour-obsessively sense, Doughty has come to embrace internet piracy and file sharing as a means to spread the word on his solo endeavor.

“File sharing is great for me. I will tell people that it makes sense for me as an artist that wants people to hear stuff and is trying to make a living. Please, if you don’t buy it steal it. If you buy it, give it to someone who can steal it,” he said.

It seems rather peculiar, then, that Doughty would depart from making a name for himself with his music alone and return to the tumultuous days of Soul Coughing and deliver The Book of Drugs. Sure, he’s admitted that money was involved, but those more familiar with his work can sense that it’s mostly a sign that he’s ready to be open and move on. But that’s not to say that the task of writing long form prose was easy.

“I consider myself a songwriter; that’s where my heart is. I was really focused on writing stories and even though there are a bunch of stories that might have an over-arching narrative, the max is like four pages. Usually, they’re like a page or two pages, so I did them in little increments like that,” said Doughty.

“The only way I could trick myself in to writing that damn thing is to be like ‘Okay, well, I’m gonna write this story right now and then write this story.’ At the end of the day, I just stacked them together chronologically.”

While literature for music fans has become saturated with addiction-related memoirs and autobiographies in the past decade (Anthony Kedis, Nikki Sixx, and Keith Richards to name a few), Doughty’s story seems to transcend expectations and reaches a certain level of authenticity not quite achieved by his bruised-and-battered rock star counterparts.

When asked if this type of story is being played out, Doughty states that this literary genre is just now emerging.

“It’s like a new story. There’s like archetypal stories. There’s like, boy meets girl, rags to riches, the hero’s journey. People who study screenwriting will sort of lay out the ten stories. So the addiction and recovery thing is a new story. It’s its own paradigm,” he explained.

These days, with a clear head, Doughty sees similarities between his career as a songwriter and his recovery from addiction. He’s grateful on a fundamental level; sincere without being corny.

“It’s all part of the same thing. Life to me is making music. And particularly the 12-step world is all about relationships and friendships and deep bonding stuff between people,” said Doughty.

* * *

On the same night that he was interviewed for this piece, Doughty took the stage to a crowd of roughly 100 people at Cosmic Charlie’s.

Kicking off with “Grey Ghost”, Doughty immediately switched his attention to a group of attendees towards the back of the bar who were talking loudly during the opening of the set.

Calling them out from the stage, Doughty told the entire crowd that he was working for them. He took the decision—to allowing talking or not—and left it in the hands of the audience. Cheers from the crowd indicated that he was right. He wasn’t demanding respect as much as he was trying to entertain those who were trying to focus on the show.

A few songs passed and—although his crowd-approved-no-talking rule had been justly instated, Doughty and his fans were ignored. He threatened to bounce them one last time before leaving the stage and rallying the rest of the crowd to follow him to offer the loud-talkers back their money. The crowd excitedly, in a what-the-fuck?-is-this-really-happening? moment, obliged.

Doughty made his way to the loud-talkers, pulled out his wallet and asked how much they paid to get in. He offered the loud-talkers their cover back. Eventually, one woman in the group—who initially resisted—finally agreed. She took Doughty’s $15 and left.

Finally returning to the stage, Doughty switched between songs, read excerpts from the “Book of Drugs” and took questions about Soul Coughing. When those in attendance requested a song by his former band, he repeated the title and politely said, “Nope, not gonna do that one.” When it came to requests for his solo material, Doughty obliged for the most part.

Doughty still had to deal with other loud-talkers and those who rudely interrupted him during his excerpt reading, handling it without leaving the stage but making his level of annoyance pronounced and justified.

The remainder of the show was a mini battle for Doughty, who managed to maintain the attention of those who cared and seemed to aim his talents directly at them, highlighting “Madeline and Nine” and new tunes like “Na Na Nothing”.

* * *

When asked to comment on the incident after the fact, Doughty responded via email, and had no problem clarifying what happened and why he did it:

“I’m not looking for reverence. There’s nothing special about me. I’m a dude doing a job. I work for the audience. They paid. If everybody’s talking, I know what my job is. When the show is messed up, it’s my responsibility, to the listeners, to do my best to make it right.

“Maybe the talkers felt they’d cut a deal with me. They didn’t. They didn’t say, for instance, ‘We’ll give you, and the club, some money, if you respect our perceived right to talk loudly.’

“I would’ve said, ‘No hard feelings, but no thank you. I’d prefer a show that the majority of the audience could enjoy, without hassle, much more than receiving my cut of your cover charge. Hope you have a fun Saturday night, wherever you choose to go.’

“It’s very strange when people threaten to withhold their dough. Do they really think that the audience’s real value to me is nothing but money?

“I should say this: they’re correct in implying that I need their money. I’ve got to buy gas for a big thirsty Sprinter van. Plus food, shelter, clothing, etc. It’s that I don’t want their money.

“Am I mistaken? Do people that are absorbed in the show think that that’s just fine for the drunks to be like that? I only have my own experience to go on. When I’m at show, intently, listening, and a dude’s talking loudly, I want to bust his nose flat.

“I’ve been told to stop talking, too, at shows. Just twice in my life. My reaction was total embarrassment. I apologized profusely, then went somewhere else to chat.”

* * *

And, so, cheers to Mike Doughty, who not only gives us reasons to ask questions, but also answers them—regardless of how mundane or serious they might be.

Dave Mistich comes to PopMatters having primed himself for a career in music journalism by studying--both as a undergraduate and graduate student--at Marshall University's School of Journalism and Mass Communications. He's written for a slew of publications, including The Charleston Daily Mail (WV), Relix Magazine, Graffiti, and WVRockScene. Aside from working as a music writer, Dave is desperately trying to find the time to finish a thesis on authenticity in the earliest years of "Crawdaddy!" (Which, if you didn't know was the first real American magazine of rock criticism.) Dave has plans to enter a doctoral program in the fall of 2013 (where is yet to be determined) and was once called "tenacious" by '80s pop icon Huey Lewis. Yes, "tenacious."
Dave can be reached via email at davemistich@me.com Or, you can follow him on Twitter: @davemistich


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